Thirty years have passed since President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, enough time for our national rage to subside, and enough time to look at it all with perspective and a cool head. That's what "Frost/Nixon," the new Broadway play starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen allows us to do, and it has proved to be an instructive -- albeit mildly entertaining -- evening of theater.
Nixon was probably one of the most reviled presidents in the history of the United States, most of which he brought on himself. Cartoonists had a field day with his face, exaggerating his heavy lower jaw that always looked stubbly, ski nose, and broad, high forehead, but he compounded the beauty factor by setting himself up as a target, daring journalists and the political opposition to come at him. And when they did, his celebrated paranoia led him to draw up an Enemies List so he could keep track, and get revenge, on those who did him wrong.
"Frost/Nixon," however, is not about the Watergate hearings, but about how David Frost managed to get Nixon as a guest on his failing talk-show, and manipulated him into apologizing for his wrongdoing in front of more than 57 million viewers. It's a fascinating character study, dramatized by two accomplished actors who know how to put on a show. Unfortunately, it's more a TV show than a Broadway show.
For those of us who have become addicted to reality TV, especially fictionalized reality TV, the best of all oxymorons, Frost/Nixon is the theaterï¿½s answer to television's "Studio 60" and "Entourage." In the same vein as the film, "Good Night and Good Luck," in which Frank Langella played William Paley, journalists are portrayed as the purveyors of our conscience. What goes into the making of the shows is more important than the show itself.
Frank Langella, this time the President, accomplishes the most remarkable of feats in actually making Nixon almost likeable. He admits to throwing out the research in an attempt to get at the essence of the man. For any of us who grew up watching and loathing Nixon, he does succeed. For those of us who grew up liking Nixon and feeling sorry for him, he also succeeds.
Michael Sheen, however, excellently cast as Tony Blair in the Oscar-nominated film, "The Queen," does not succeed as well. He's missing Frost's bon vivant sophistication that made him an entertaining foil to the pompousness of William Buckley and the pseudo-intellectualism of Dick Cavett. His portrayal of Frost is confused and unfocused, a TV pro who doesn't really seem competent enough to pull this off.
Maybe that's the point. "Tricky-Dick" was no one to trifle with, considering no one believed in the '70s that Richard Nixonï¿½s emotional state had any connection to reality. A man known forever as one whose sweaty upper lip and five o'clock shadow cost him a national election could not possibly understand the pulse of a nation, or an audience's reaction to a television interview. It was just TV, after all, and Frost was no Mike Wallace.
The re-enactment of this interview is well-conceived and directed. The huge screens hanging above the studio set convey the essence of television then and now. Yet, if I want to watch a show about an interview on TV, I can stay home and watch it on TV.
The producers of "Frost/Nixon" clearly and deliberately chose this month to open the play given that the memorable interview was aired on May 19, 1977, and journalist Jim Reston's book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon, will be published next month. They're probably betting that the book will spur ticket sales, and that the play will increase book sales. Not a losing bet at all. But money will be better spent on the book.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½Briskly entertaining new play." & "A British import staged, with the momentum of a ticking-bomb thriller and the zing of a boulevard comedy, by Michael Grandage).
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Langella is, simply, a knockout. & "Michael Grandage stages 'Frost/Nixon' with confidence and clarity. The production is so slick, you almost ï¿½ but not quite ï¿½ forgive Morgan's overdependence on narration to advance the plot. Efficient? Yes. But it is as dramatic as a guided museum tour."
CLIVE BARNES of THe NEW YORK POST: "Both Morgan, with his totally credible script, and Grandage, with his masterly fluid staging, have done an expert job." & "In all, 'Frost/Nixon' is one of those definitive Broadway experiences."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Riveting drama....one of the year's best plays." & "The word from London, where 'Frost/Nixon' proved a hit, buzzed how the acting by Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost was inspired and boy oh boy, that's true."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "As supremely entertaining theater, though, Frost/Nixon is an undisputed winner."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Peter Morgan's facile script and Michael Grandage's slick production have the oversimplified distortions of a historical coloring book and the phony significance of a high-toned "Rocky" movie."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Thanks to Mr. Morgan's padded but engaging efforts, we have Nixon to kick around once again. And thanks to the triumphant Mr. Langella, Tricky Dick is kicking right back."
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: " There is no doubt that 'Frost/Nixon' is rattling good theater. What is open to question is how good it is as history." & "'Frost/Nixon' is as good as a play can get without being great. Nowadays, that is much more than enough."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "The play is awash in urgency, both verbally and physically. Under Grandage's whiz-bang direction, it never stops moving, particularly while setting up the ultimate confrontation between talk-show host and subject."
PETER MARKS of the WASHINGTON POST: "To experience 'Frost/Nixon' without Michael Sheen would be unfortunate. To imagine it without Frank Langella is impossible. Langella plays Richard M. Nixon to Sheen's David Frost in this juicy drama about their famous 1977 series of television encounters, and it proves to be one of the most remarkable Broadway performances in years."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "A hit in London, Michael Grandage's lucid production burnishes the play's merits as stage writing, but there's no question about the potency of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen's blazing performances."
External links to full reviews from newspapers